Things are growing nastier at 3 W. 16th St. in Manhattan. Last week, the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue (YIFA), an Orthodox synagogue with about 200 members located at the Chelsea address, was barred from receiving its packages. That’s because the building owner is refusing to accept the synagogue’s mail.
The latest incident of anti-Semitism? Hardly.
The building owner is the National Council of Young Israel, the parent organization for nearly 150 Orthodox synagogues across the country.
For nearly 60 years the six-story brick building has been the national headquarters for NCYI, as well as the home to the synagogue created by NCYI founders as an essential component of their new home. The building was purchased in 1944 from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Today, a small Sephardic congregation also operates there.
But a bitter religious and legal dispute has broken out between NCYI and YIFA over the national group’s imminent plans to sell the office building to developers for $5.4 million so it can be turned into condos.
NCYI says it needs money and wants to cash in on New York’s hot real estate market. It dismisses YIFA as a renter with no say in the sale.
But YIFA officials claim that as a central part of NCYI, the synagogue has an ownership interest in the building. YIFA says it was blindsided by NCYI and the sale would put their congregation out of business.
"That a synagogue organization sees itself as a landlord is shameful," declares Rabbi Israel Wohlgelernter, YIFA’s spiritual leader since 1962. "For monetary gain, the National Council is ready to profane its mission, defy [the Jewish code of law] and destroy a synagogue."
"A court order approving the sale of the property would be a death sentence for YIFA," said attorney Joel Cohen, a YIFA member representing the shul.
NCYI, according to its Web site, "assists groups of committed Jews throughout the world in their quest to establish a Makom Tefilla [place of prayer]."
Leading Orthodox rabbis weighing in on the dispute are divided as to whether the sale violates Jewish law, or halacha.
NCYI’s rabbinical advisory board, or vaad, approved the sale last year, saying it does not violate halacha. But YIFA has gathered support from such prominent New York Modern Orthodox rabbis as Hershel Schachter, Adam Mintz, Marc Angel and Haskel Lookstein, who disagree with the NCYI vaad.
Some recommended the parties settle the dispute before a bet din, or religious court.
"At the very least, everything possible ought to be done to keep this from becoming a major communal disgrace," wrote Rabbi Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in a letter to YIFA officials.
The matter already is in secular court.
YIFA formally objected to the building sale last month at a civil court hearing that is required under New York State law whenever a religious and/or not-for-profit property is proposed for sale.
And on May 21, YIFA filed a lawsuit claiming it is has an ownership interest in the building. It calls for NCYI to open its financial records. A hearing is scheduled for June 20.
Cohen said the lawsuit was filed to protect YIFA’s interest because NCYI refused to settle in a bet din.
YIFA claims the congregation cannot afford to relocate in the neighborhood because of skyrocketing rents. It must stay in the neighborhood, said president Victor Bellino, because Orthodox worshipers must walk to Sabbath and holiday services.
NCYI attorney Kenneth Fisher said YIFA is only a renter, with no ownership rights.
(NCYI executive director Rabbi Pesach Lerner and lay president Steve Mostofsky would not be interviewed for this article.)
Fisher, a former Brooklyn City Councilman, said YIFA has rejected alternative locations and offers of several hundred thousand dollars to relocate. He said YIFA is paying approximately $20,000 in rent for space that has a market value of $140,000 a year.
"Our analysis is that they could rent suitable space in the neighborhood of a size appropriate for their membership for $60,000 a year," Fisher said.
Fisher said NCYI is selling its headquarters now because "this is a terrific opportunity for [NCYI] to capture some of the value of the hot New York real estate market, and get out of the burden of having to maintain an antiquated building that is old and needs work."
He said no buyer could be found for that price that would agree to keep the synagogue.
Fisher said the sale would help NCYI create a multimillion-dollar fund to pay rent "and have some left over for programs."
But there are other expenses. The Jewish Week has learned that the State Department of Health has a $5.3 million claim against NCYI for overpayment of Medicaid claims in relation to the NCYI-owned Shalom Nursing Home in Mount Vernon.
"The matter is in litigation," said a DOH spokesman.
Meanwhile, YIFA called NCYI’s vaad process unfair. Bellino said that NCYI’s Mostofsky "flatly refused" his pleas to allow Rabbi Wohlgelernter to address the vaad before approving the sale.
YIFA also said it has been rebuffed for months to convene a bet din.
Orthodox tradition calls for Jews to settle disputes in a bet din before going to a secular court.
NCYI has refused to act on two summonses issued by the Rabbinical Council of America Bet Din inviting NCYI to participate. RCA issued a third summons on May 29. (While these documents are usually considered confidential, the third summons is posted on YIFA’s Web site.)
RCA Bet Din director Rabbi Yona Reiss requested that NCYI respond by June 10. Failure to respond to three summonses can lead to a host of punitive religious actions, including a seruv, a form of religious excommunication.
"One can only wonder why the National Council is afraid to have a bet din review all the facts and resolve the issue according to halacha," Rabbi Wohlgelernter said.
Fisher said NCYI did not act on the first two summonses because YIFA had previously complained to the state attorney general’s office about the sale.
He said the third summons "is being reviewed by [NCYI] leadership" in light of YIFA’s lawsuit.
Rabbi Reiss declined to discuss the case. But asked if one party can unilaterally bypass a bet din if the other side takes secular court action, he said: "Generally speaking, a person always has to make an argument before the bet din to explain why he feels he does not have to appear."
In a new development, YIFA has agreed to withdraw the civil suit if NCYI agrees to the bet din, YIFA’s Cohen said.
With YIFA’s withdrawal, Rabbi Reiss wrote, he sees no reason why the case "cannot be presented in the context of a proper Din Torah [religious court] proceeding."
Rabbi Wohlgelernter already has concluded the sale violates Jewish law.
Citing a religious ruling by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the 20th century’s greatest Orthodox decisors, Rabbi Wohlgelernter said it "would prohibit the sale of the building, even if YIFA were, as a the National Council claims, a mere tenant."
His emotional newsletter protesting the sale was taken off YIFA’s bulletin board at 3 W. 16th St. by Rabbi Lerner. Then last week, NCYI stopped accepting YIFA mail.
"Because YIFA has decided to bring a formal legal action against NCYI, we have advised USPS, FedEx, Airborne, UPS and any other parcel services that make deliveries to 3 West 16th Street that we cannot accept items addressed to YIFA in our general delivery mail service," according to a May 22 letter signed by NCYI director of operations Henry Alper.
Alper said the directive came from Rabbi Lerner.